Psychological Safety in the Workplace
The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that 13,000 injuries occur on US worksites daily. To mitigate the potential of even more injuries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires businesses and organizations to adhere to the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, a provision asserting that employers “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” The good news for all of us working types is that our employers are required to ensure our bodily safety even if it costs a hefty sum of money to do so. The not so good news? Words, attitudes, biases, and the like can potentially do far more damage to workers than a crack in the pavement or a dimly lit hallway. Psychological safety takes intention at all levels of the business or organization.
In a psychologically safe workplace, workers “can share intimate details of their lives if they wish to without having to worry about being judged or ridiculed.” Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, who is credited with coining the phrase “psychological safety,” adds that this type of safety hinges upon “a shared belief by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” My own take on psychological safety is a little more direct: leaders are accountable for this. If your work environment does not afford psychological safety to the members of the team, then performance suffers, good people leave, and trust gets eroded. All of that is on the leadership.
So, let’s assume you want to infuse your organization with a higher level of psychological safety. Your first step is to tear down knowledge silos that stifle collaboration while elevating suspicion and cynicism. Make sure everyone on the team can articulate the purpose, vision, mission, and goals that drive the organization and then insist that all openly share the wisdom and work product that serve vision, mission, and goals. Yes, reward great ideas, but always assert that the great ideas move the organization forward, not just pad the advancement portfolio of the originator. Your people need to know that their coworkers are serious about nourishing a cohesive team, and are not just “in it to win it” for themselves.
Psychologically safe work environments encourage experimentation and recognize that mistakes happen. Ask yourself, “Is there a lot of innovation in my setting?” If the answer is a definitive NO, then most likely the members of the team fear sharing their ideas, fear being chastised if the good ideas don’t work, or both. Healthy, growing organizations celebrate experimentation, learn from their mistakes, and consistently give their people the bandwidth to engage in robust trial and error. Psychologically safe environments never compromise on the emotional wellbeing of their people either; it’s okay to be vulnerable about work and private life in a safe environment.
A word about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). If you intend on moving the needle on psychological safety, then you need to deepen your knowledge and understanding about DEI and recognize that it requires a global mindset, not a program to be managed by a handful of professionals in your corporate HR function. DEI leaders realize that a diverse, affirming, and collaborative environment continues to deepen performance, commitment, and trust. DEI leaders model behaviours that sustain psychological safety and do not tolerate members of the team who continue to compromise it.
Is your workplace safe? Clearly, it will involve much more than meeting OSHA standards.